Democrats’ voting rights legislation ‘on ice’ with opposition to filibuster change

President Biden and congressional Democrats made a new push Thursday for voting rights legislation. The House passed a repackaged set of two bills aimed at blunting Republican-passed state laws that Democrats say will limit voting. But they still face hurdles within their own party to achieve a filibuster rule change. NewsHour's Lisa Desjardins and Geoff Bennett join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, President Biden left the Capitol without the votes for the filibuster change he needs to pass voting rights legislation.

    Here to help us understand what happened and what's next, Geoff Bennett from the White House, Lisa Desjardins. She was on Capitol Hill today.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, Geoff, let me start with you.

    As we said, the president did meet with Democrats today, hoping to make some progress on the filibuster.

    Tell us what happened.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    He had those meetings, but he wasn't able to persuade members of his own party to support him in this effort.

    I think it was a political reality best underscored by the fact that Senator Kyrsten Sinema delivered that Senate floor speech even before President Biden arrived on the Hill for that closed-door lunch meeting with Senate Democrats, she making clear her opposition to having a carve-out that would allow the two bills, those voting right bills, to move forward in the Senate.

    Now, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told us today that, in that meeting, the president warned the senators of what he sees as a systematic effort to dismantle the democracy. And he told them that right now they have an historic chance to change that.

    But he came out of that meeting and spoke to reporters. And he talked about this voting rights push, Judy, in the past tense. It was a real acknowledgment that, at least for right now, this entire thing is on ice.

    So this is a really politically fraught moment for this president, who has invested so much political capital in this issue, potentially raising expectations among Democrats, his supporters, voting rights experts, and advocates, who wanted him to be more forceful and be more aggressive on this issue, when the underlying political realities haven't changed at all, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, given that, Lisa, where does that leave — given what Senator Sinema has said, no progress, apparently, where does that leave all this, and especially given the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer's promise to get something done by Monday?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Democrats have always had a very small needle to thread. That needle became much smaller today with Senator Sinema's announcement, even though that was somewhat expected.

    Let me tell you where things stand. Right now, we expect the Senate to pick up those voting rights bills that you reported passing in the House. But we don't know when. That's because one senator, Senator Schatz of Hawaii, is quarantined with the coronavirus. We expect him to return this weekend.

    So, we're still waiting on timing for when this debate over voting rights will begin, but we do expect it to. But the big question still remains: What is the endgame here for Democrats? I was told by multiple senators I spoke with today, as well as leadership sources, that Democrats still have not decided exactly what rules change they will vote on when it comes to it.

    The deadline for that, set by Senator Schumer, was Monday. As we know, there is not the vote to erase the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate. But there is still talk of trying to change things, so that perhaps a talking filibuster is imposed.

    There's a lot of discussion. There is not a lot of clarity. And, Judy, note this. Up on the Hill, it really struck me today, no president in U.S. history has more experience in the U.S. Senate than this one, not by a long shot. But here he is unable to convince two members of his own party that they need to change the institution for the good of democracy.

    And I just don't sense those dynamics changing yet. But we will watch closely in the next day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, so much focus on the Democrats, and yet the Republicans there, they are united in their opposition. What are they saying about all this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:


    Republicans had two things they were doing today. One was expressing relief over Senator Sinema's announcement. The other was redoubling their own arguments on the relief front. I want to read you something that Senator McConnell told the press corps today.

    He doesn't stop and talk to us often, but he did today, no surprise. He said: "Senator Sinema's decision was an extraordinarily important one and she has, as a conspicuous act of political coverage, saved the Senate as an institution."

    Those are the words of Republican leader Mitch McConnell. Then, on the Senate floor, we heard from Republicans on why they think the voting right acts are not going to be helpful, and why they think it's a mistake to try and change Senate rules for those, instead of focusing on other issues they have.

    Here's Ben Sasse of Nebraska:

  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE):

    It makes absolutely no sense to try to go into nuclear partisanship now, when we should actually be talking about how we prevent another January 6 by doing the hard and actual bipartisan work, not the grandstanding for Twitter, but the hard and bipartisan work of reforming the Electoral Count Act, which is 130 years old and obviously doesn't work that well.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, the divide over the divide remains.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, back to you, Geoff.

    We know the president has a lot riding on this. But, meantime, he's still trying to get Build Back Better passed. He's got a deal with COVID. What does it add up to for him?

  • Geoff Bennett:

    It's a real risk of inaction on the totality of President Biden's domestic agenda.

    As you mentioned, Build Back Better is now paused, mainly because of the reluctance of Senator Manchin to move forward on that. You have got inflation. You have got higher prices. You have got a seemingly intractable COVID crisis. Add to it no movement on police reform and potentially no movement on voting rights.

    I asked the White House today, why move forward with these show votes when the president himself has acknowledged that this process doesn't have the votes to advance? And Jen Psaki told me that the president believes he's right on the merits. And he also believes that it's important to be seen trying, that it's important to invest on this issue, given the real threat to democracy, as he and so many of the Democrats see it, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Geoff Bennett, Lisa Desjardins following it all.

    We thank you both.

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